If our Solar System were a dinner party, we’d be the glutton who boorishly inhales his food then impatiently eyes up everyone else’s meals for the first sign of a hesitant appetite leaving a window to purloin their plates. The metaphor breaks down, of course, when you remember that we’ve long-since scared off any guests to our dinner parties, and invitations are met with either deathly silence or vague murmurings that may just be cosmic background radiation, answer-machine to the Universe. Since we can’t assume that some galactic guest is going to show up fashionably late, preferably with dessert, we’re eventually going to have to start snacking on Ferrero Rocher for sustenance.
Such is the ambition of Planetary Resources, who want to try ensnaring passing asteroids and mine them for natural resources like water and metals in a bid to “expand Earth’s natural resource base”, going up against the government’s current low-cost but somewhat less effective strategy of doing sod all. It’s attracted the financial backing of various bigwigs including film director James Cameron, a man who’s directed so many space-faring disaster movies involving aliens they might as well call the first manned ship the ‘SS Human Sacrifice’. Not surprisingly, the concept has attracted pessimists sneering at the prohibitive technical and cost barriers of this venture; some have called them overly-cynical, but I don’t think they’re being cynical enough.
The biggest problem that Planetary Resources faces is not the technical difficulty or the cost, at least those can potentially be overcome. Their biggest challenge will be in trying to get any, let alone every, country on the planet to stop thinking about their own financial, political and military interests long enough to see the bigger picture.
Getting together representatives from all four corners to realise this strategy would quickly become the most awkward dinner party in the Universe, and Planetary Resources wants to do the catering! I can’t imagine the already strained atmosphere will be made any more tranquil when the guests are told that dinner will only be served once they can learn to co-operate; and, if they can’t, they’ll never eat again. Social convention must necessarily be broken by bringing the topic of conversation to politics. It’ll start out amicable but, as the wine flows, one misjudged comment and next thing you know you’re tentatively briefing your defence secretary in case your tipsy faux pas pissed off anyone powerful, we’ve all been there. It’d be incredible if anyone came out of it with the same number of limbs, let alone a cohesive plan to save the planet. Even Dave Lamb wouldn’t be able to diffuse it.
Hell, it’d be a Herculean feat in itself to get the theocracies and otherwise religiously devout nations to admit there’s a problem, given they all have something in scripture that amounts to their deities saying “Don’t worry, I’ve got this” which usually forms the basis of climate change denial. Since Jesus didn’t have enough foresight to use his magic duplication powers on anything a little more scarce than pastry and cod, it looks like we’re on our own.
Maybe the answer is in the evening’s entertainment. Turn it into a game and use the self-importance of each country against itself. It would’ve taken the Americans far longer to get to the Moon if their hubris hadn’t made them so keen to beat the USSR up there. The only thing at stake then was being the first to jab an oversized cocktail stick into a barren lump of rock that is so keen for attention it circles us like a fly. Surely the detection, capture and harvesting the gooey innards of meteorically-passing asteroids en masse represents a huge ego boost in the international dick-swinging contest.
This condescending, but effective, method of motivation will also reap untold financial gain, more than justifying the effort, but that poses a problem in itself. Whoever succeeds first will take control of the only new resource for a planet with rapidly dwindling supplies, and can quite literally hold the world to ransom like a cartoon supervillian. I can’t think of a single nation on the planet that I’d feel comfortable about having that much influence. Well, maybe Norway.
So how do we solve the myriad challenges that Planetary Resources will face? Beats me. I’m not here to propose solutions, I’m just here to piss in your cornflakes by finding fault. At the very least we should try and obtain the merchandise before we worry too much about who it belongs to. That way, even if we end up blowing each other to kingdom come over this, we’ll at least have helped lay out a good spread for whichever nation emerges victorious to dine on. Bon appétit, don’t have nightmares.